Leading a responsible nation requires delicate balancing. U.S. President Barack Obama must manage the time he spends on domestic and international politics, so he doesn't neglect thorny national issues, or overlook international situations where the United States claims to desire to play an important role. When a nation's foreign policy is more assertive than its domestic policy, problems can arise. Back in November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that "In the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in." Clearly, he has both overstepped and not followed-up. But if Obama were able to balance this so-called "pivot" to Asia with domestic concerns, Asia-Pacific nations would welcome the United States as a responsible stakeholder in the region. Unfortunately, these days, that is not the case.
In early October of this year, Obama announced he would not be attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the premier gathering of Asian leaders, held October 7-8 in Indonesia. This is not the first time Obama has failed to attend top gatherings of the region's leaders. Though he dispatched the capable John Kerry to attend on his behalf, the secretary of state lacks Obama's stature, and thus is less able to push the U.S. regional agenda.
Obama appears overwhelmed by domestic problems. He cancelled his Asia trip because of the U.S. government shutdown, which arose from his desire to defend "Obamacare," his controversial health care program. Promoting universal medical insurance has been part of his party's platform for over half a century; similar plans are already available in many industrialized countries. However, Obama may have failed to understand a fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism: The United States has a unique history and culture that allows its citizens great liberty -- and many believe that includes the right not to buy medical insurance.
Republicans may deserve most of the blame for the government shutdown, but as president, Obama shoulders the ultimate responsibility for shaping the nation's agenda and forging consensus so the government does not fall apart. Obama has been pushing the right agenda, but at the wrong time: Obamacare shouldn't be prioritized until the United States is able to balance its budget and foster the growth of middle-class incomes.
Obama's Asia policy suffers from the same excess of ambition and lack of balancing as his healthcare policy. Washington has expressed concern about Chinese vessels conducting economic activity in several Southeast Asian nations' exclusive economic zones. And the White House worries about China's "assertive" handling of territorial disputes with U.S. allies, including the Diaoyu -- islands in the East China Sea which Japan claims -- and Huangyan, a shoal in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. By meddling with the Diaoyus, Obama is taking an unbalanced stance in favor of Japan, thus stirring up tensions in East Asia.